After what seemed like forever, the wait is now over. The long delayed confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy as our nation’s next surgeon general has shown that there can be life after death, and ushers in an opportunity to refocus our thinking and efforts on medicine and public health in the United States.
Contrary to what many believe, as our nation’s primary public health advocate, the surgeon general has a powerful voice. This became painfully obvious when the office was vacant as Ebola reached America and the leadership vacuum led to misinformation, panic, and fear. During the Ebola crisis, we, as a nation, were desperate for a leader. We wanted someone who we could turn to, someone who would comfort and reassure us of our individual and national safety. The absence of an official surgeon general led President Obama to create a completely new position: the Ebola Response Coordinator, or simply put, Ebola Czar. Ron Klain did a fine job as Ebola Czar, and the Ebola crisis is seemingly in hand, as of now (knock on wood!). But concerns slowly began to arise around the nation, about whom we would turn to should America be faced with more such pandemics.
Shortly after Murthy’s confirmation by the Senate, President Obama released a statement: “As America’s Doctor, Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.” And now that Dr. Murthy has officially assumed office, we can put those issues to rest. The question that we, as the American people, must collectively ask is “what should we expect, and what do we need from our new surgeon general?”
Medicine and public health are two complementary fields in our modern world. Public health advocacy essentially creates a bridge that connects the clinical world with the epidemiological world. We know that America has glaring holes in its healthcare system, and we know that the old, reactive approach to healthcare is ineffective, for the most part. What we need is a system of preventive healthcare—one that should focus more on disease prevention than disease cure and treatment. And so it is time for our nation’s health leaders to unequivocally embrace the saying “prevention is better than cure.” Dr. Murthy should use his new voice to make a bold stand for change. Hopefully, he can — and I believe he will — change these deficiencies by continually advocating for a culture of medicine and health, and help Americans achieve the level of health that citizens of many other countries attain. By emphasizing the benefits of policies that call for greater healthcare quality and disease prevention, the results will be quite clear: better and more cost-effective healthcare for Americans.
As surgeon general, Dr. Murthy should wholeheartedly support evidence-based health promotion and disease prevention programs. He should help major businesses and corporations adopt these programs. And he should begin with efforts that impact our most vulnerable neighbors across the nation who live in places where the risk of preventable chronic diseases is unacceptably high. It’s totally reasonable to expect Murthy to initially reach out to and serve low-income neighborhoods, as he’s done it successfully as founder of his non-profit organization “Doctors for America.”
Dr. Murthy will now have the ability to serve both individuals and global communities, and will have ample backing from a large portion of the medical community, including organization giants such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, and the American Medical Association. He’s promised to be a solutions-oriented and data-driven leader on some of America’s most intractable health issues that break down along racial and socioeconomic lines, such as obesity, mental health, smoking, and vaccinations.
With Dr. Murthy now at the helm of US medicine and public health, there is much to hope for, and so much to look forward to. As Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners for Health and Harvard University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, has said: “Dr. Vivek Murthy has long experience in community-based care, in communicating complex messages in a straightforward and even-handed manner, and is committed not just to passing on information to others, but to learning from them, too.” With that being said, will we see the average American life expectancy number of 78.74 years reach 80? Will we see an improvement in healthcare efficiency? Will we make visible strides towards our repeatedly stated goal of “Health Care for All?” It’s all up to America’s top doc.
Dr. Murthy, we’re looking at you.